Wednesday, March 9, 2016

A Quirk of Egyptian Art

Fig. 1 - Osiris, from a Relief of Nectanebo II
     Have you ever looked carefully at an Egyptian relief to see how the human body is shown? I mean, have you ever looked really close? Take a look at figure 1, (from the reign of Nectanebo II) which shows Osiris in human (unmummified) form. Notice that his head is shown in profile. His shoulders are shown "face on" to the viewer even though his arm are shown sort of in profile. His abdomen and hips are shown in profile as are his legs. No human could actually stand this way. What seems to be going on is the Egyptian need to show the human body as fully as possible, regardless of artistic perspective.

Fig. 2 - two of Akhenaten's Daughters Embarace
     One of the attractions of Amarna art is its charming portrayal of the royal family's private life. We even see scenes of the Queen sitting on the Kig's lap while the royal couple play with their children. Artistic conventions were much freer during the Amarna interlude, but even then old conventions did not completely die. Take a look at the relief in figure 2 where two of Akhenaten's daughters are shown. The older daughter on the left is shown with her head in profile, her chest is "straight on" as if she is facing the viewer while her waist and dress are shown in profile. But yet this relief does have the charm that the art of this period is famous for as the two sisters embrace each other.

     One can go all the way back to the Old Kingdom and see carvings with these same contorted portrayals of the human body. Even in a period of three thousand years, Egyptian art did not change all that dramatically. This is truly one of the most interesting examples of artistic conservatism in all of history.

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